Over the weekend, I briefly participated in a conversation with someone who used the term “Christian values” to describe what I would simply call “moral values.” It’s not a big deal – we basically agreed on the issue anyway. But Christians who use language in this way are unconsciously cherry picking their theology to cover up fundamental problems that I believe would destroy their faith.
In the case above, my friend was making an anti-war argument; essentially: “killing people is at odds with Christian values.” If you substitute “moral values” for “Christian values,” I view this as a sound (though not necessarily valid, depending on the premises) argument. When I challenged him with the fact that both historic Christianity and the Bible itself are often pro-genocide (see my previous post for Biblical references), he said that he was just talking about the teachings of Jesus.
I’m pretty sure this same person would say that Jesus is God, and that God is unchanging (Malachi 3:6). Sometimes we like what God says. Sometimes we don’t. Sometimes that distinction falls along the line between the “Old” and “New” testaments. Regardless, I cannot understand why it is so easy for Christians to ignore massive parts of their book while holding other parts in such high esteem that they would say it is central to their life and identity.
My guess is this: if you do not cherry-pick certain parts of the Bible – focusing only on the characteristics of God that you already believe to be good and moral, and then applying them to the whole – then your faith will collapse among the roar of cognitive dissonance.
Another example: the “historical Adam.” I believe that Evangelical Christians oppose the fact of evolution (and the established theory of natural selection, which explains it) not so much because it degrades “the dignity of man” as because it chips away at a necessary myth. This is orthodox theology: that there must be an original sinner (Adam) who was created perfect in a perfect world but who rejected God on behalf of all who were to come after him. We now know, however, that there was never a time when just a single human couple existed. We know that the results of “the fall of man” (which Christianity defines as death, pain, destruction, lack of perfection, etc.) were always present, in some sense, on earth.
Even modern, progressive Christians who understand our evolutionary past will talk about a historical Adam in church; they just won’t talk about him in the same conversation with evolution. I personally know many, many Christians like this. It’s a Sunday-morning-vs-the-rest-of-the-week distinction. And why? Because the apostle Paul’s Christology utterly collapses without a historical Adam. If there’s no fall, there’s no explanation for sin, death, or lack of perfection; there’s no need for salvation; and there’s no justification for God’s punishment. It all becomes a primitive “just-so” story to explain the complex world that we now understand just a little better – though still imperfectly.
So they pay lip-service to Adam. They focus on the New Testament God to the exclusion of that same, immutable God’s commands in the Old Testament. They won’t excise the concept of hell from their theology, but they live happily and ambivalently with unbelieving friends. And the cherry-picking doesn’t just consist of skipping over uncomfortable bits: sometimes new, foreign bits are added in. Can anyone make a biblical case for the spiritual fervor with which some Christians oppose consuming alcohol?
Reality: the Bible was written by a lot of different people with a lot of different views and understandings of God (or gods, in some cases). In a sense, cherry-picking is necessary to synthesize all this into a coherent life philosophy. But if your justification for which parts you exclude (or view as “figurative”) is based solely on what you and your culture already like or believe, I beg you to recognize that you don’t need the Bible. You don’t need religion. You can think about life’s difficult moral questions – along with others in your community – and come to real answers: answers that don’t require miscellaneous redaction to be coherent.